Biden administration opposes Alaska mining road approved by Trump administration
Ambler Road runs through Indigenous lands, and the Trump administration is alleged by Alaska Natives to have skirted environmental review process for it.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, claiming that the Trump administration subverted Indigenous rights and environmental protections in the pursuit of a 211-mile road meant to provide access to the Ambler Mining District in northwest Alaska.
The problem, Justice argues, is that the Trump administration botched an environmental review process for the road, which would run through Alaska Native lands.
The state’s Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) submitted an application to federal land managers — from the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the United States Coast Guard — seeking approval for the road during the Obama administration, in 2015. The agencies concluded their reviews in July 2020, during the waning months of the Trump administration.
The application was ultimately approved on January 5, 2021, in the waning days of the Trump administration.
The Native citizens involved in the case, the Alatna Village Council, as well as the plaintiffs in a related case, Northern Alaska Environmental Center v. Haaland, say that federal managers “violated a host of laws in evaluating the application,” according to the court filing.
Interior land managers under the Biden administration now “recognize that it is appropriate to revisit the challenged decisions,” Justice argues in its brief.
Interior now wishes to analyze “impacts to subsistence uses under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act” and “impacts under the National Historic Preservation Act to properties of traditional religious and cultural importance to federally recognized tribes.”
The Justice filing states that the initial Trump administration review “was deficient” and says that Interior now also intends “to supplement the analysis under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).”
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R), as well as Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, are all quite angry at the Biden administration’s move here.
They note that the permitting process for Ambler Road began during the Obama administration, and they are concerned that it “now faces months of supplemental environmental analysis,” according to a joint statement issued Feb. 22. They further say that the minerals that would be derived from the road’s development are necessary during the current global supply chain crisis.
"It's stunning: on the very same day the President attempted to tout 'progress' on mineral development, his administration backtracked and set back this crucial project, which will enable Alaska to responsibly produce a range of needed minerals," Murkowski said in her own statement.
Murkowski needs every Alaska Native vote she can get in her upcoming primary race, especially because former President Donald Trump has made it a top goal to support her primary opponent in an effort to unseat her, given her past two impeachment votes against him.
Could this move cost her votes among Alaska Natives? And what impact might it have on financial campaign support from wealthy Alaska Native Corporations?
The Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC) and area tribes, for their part, issued a joint statement of their own, thanking the Biden administration “for recognizing the legal defects,” and they “urge the State of Alaska to drop the road proposal altogether.”
“The 200+ mile Ambler road represents a fundamental threat to our people, our subsistence way of life and our cultural resources,” said Brian Ridley, president of the TCC. “We appreciate that the federal government recognized the flaws in the previous administration’s decisions to permit the road. We believe any objective review of the full impacts of this project, including the mining that it would facilitate, would demonstrate that constructing this road through the heart of our traditional lands would be a terrible idea.”
“We have lived on these lands for thousands of years,” added Frank Thompson, first chief of Evansville. “Our lives here are only possible because of the subsistence resources that also exist here. The previous administration ignored our knowledge of subsistence resources that exist on these lands and the grave threat to those resources posed by the proposed industrial road. We therefore thank the Biden administration for standing up for our people and our right to continue to live on these lands with our resources intact, and we ask the State of Alaska to follow suit and stop pursuing this road.”
Indigenous Wire is a Native-owned, reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.